5 reasons why Sanibel, Florida convinced me to travel again
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I admit it: I’ve been reluctant to travel since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. My fear wasn’t so much about catching the disease since I’m confident wearing a mask, being mindful of social distancing and sanitizing high-touch surfaces will keep me safe. (I prefer an N95 or P100 respirator-style face covering; mine are vented so I also wear a surgical mask over it to ensure the safety of those around me in addition to myself.)
My larger concern was this: How much fun is a vacation where we don’t go on a guided tour, take a cooking class with a local chef, visit a museum, eat at a restaurant, nurse an after-dinner drink at a local bar or head to a venue to listen to live music? All of those things usually require spending extended time indoors — sometimes maskless — with lots of people, and I do draw the line there. So, we steered clear of trips because it just didn’t seem worth the resources and effort to have a less-than experience.
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But, as this pandemic wears on, it’s clear we’re all going to have to learn to live with this disease for a while longer. Many of you have already found workarounds when it comes to balancing the risks of COVID-19 with travel.
Maybe you bought an RV (like Richard Kerr, TPG’s loyalty and engagement editor) or rented one to stay somewhere like Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground. Perhaps you rented a private beach house where you had all the space — indoors and out — you could possibly want. Others decided to take advantage of hotel packages, such as Work From Hyatt, to get away from home, even just for a little while.
So, when The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel reached out to gauge my comfort level for in-state beach trips (I’m a Florida resident), I knew it was time to reevaluate my thoughts on safe getaways. Sanibel, after all, is one of my favorite places on Earth. In fact, back in April, I wrote about how I’d likely visit Sanibel as soon as it felt safe.
Here are a few reasons why I made Sanibel my first pandemic-era vacation, and why other reluctant travelers may want to consider the islands of Sanibel and Captiva for a getaway themselves — even though the coronavirus is an ongoing concern.
It’s easy to get here
In Lee County on Florida’s Gulf Coast, you’ll find Fort Myers and its amazing coastline with the barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva just over the causeway from Punta Rassa. If you live in the Sunshine State, Fort Myers and the islands are no secret and it’s easy to get here: It’s about a 3.5-hour drive from Orlando, 3 hours from West Palm Beach, 2.5 hours from Tampa, two hours from Sarasota and an hour from Naples.
Even the drive from Jacksonville is a manageable six hours and can be done on one tank of gas.
To keep things simple, we drove to Sanibel, but you can fly to Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW). Air Canada, American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit Airlines, Sun Country, United and WestJet all serve RSW from gateways in the United States and Canada. Alaska Airlines starts flying to RSW from Los Angeles (LAX) and Seattle (SEA) at the end of November 2020.
Sanibel has a face mask order
The City of Sanibel’s proclamation 20-040 states that facial coverings are mandatory while indoors at public places. According to the rules, face coverings are required at all businesses or other places of public accommodation with a roof overhead. These are places where business is conducted; goods are made, stored or processed; and where services are rendered. The rule applies to for-profit, non-profit and governmental facilities but it does not extend to places of religious worship.
Like at Disney World or on airplanes, these rules apply to everyone over 2 years old. And, when outdoors, the proclamation calls for mask-wearing if you must be closer than 6 feet to another person with whom you don’t reside. You don’t need to wear a face mask outside when you can practice social distancing.
People aren’t great about wearing masks where I live in Florida, so I was a little concerned about traveling to Sanibel. But nearly everyone I saw was complying with the face mask rules.
That gives me great confidence that Sanibel is a safe place to visit. (Studies and reports by medical journals such as The Lancet prove that face masks and social distancing are effective measures to help prevent coronavirus as we wait for the creation and distribution of a viable vaccine.)
You can easily rent a beach cottage or condo
One of the real lures of Sanibel and Captiva is the fact that you can rent a cottage or condo right on the beach, bay or very nearby. Quick access to the Gulf of Mexico is a gift and the location of these accommodations makes it easy to go shelling at low tide (the most optimal time to do so), play in the surf whenever you want and return later in the day in time for a gorgeous sunset.
Related: 13 of the best beaches in Florida
Many accommodations have efficiency or full kitchens, and being able to prepare at least a few meals from the comfort of your rental is a huge perk, especially right now. It’s a cost-saving measure for some and a downright convenience for families when someone is guaranteed to be hungry at all times of the day!
Having a home-like environment also allows you to really connect with the island. Many condo complexes, for example, have a mix of rentals and residential units, so you have the opportunity to meet and mingle with locals if you want. It’s awesome to get insight and suggestions from people who call these islands home.
There are many excellent places renting Gulf-front cottages or condos. On Sanibel, try Island Inn, any of the four Inns of Sanibel (Sanibel Inn, Song of the Sea, Sunset Beach Inn and Seaside Inn), Sundial Beach Resort & Spa, Casa Ybel Resort, Castaway Beach and Bay Cottages or Mitchell’s Sand Castles, to name a few.
If Captiva is calling your name, look to ‘Tween Waters Island Resort, Jensen’s Twin Palm Resort and Marina, Jensen’s On the Gulf and South Seas Island Resort.
You can rent vacation homes on Sanibel, but there’s a 28-night minimum at most rentals. So, if you’re looking for short-term vacation home rentals, Captiva is your better bet.
Sanibel Moorings Resort
Sanibel Moorings Resort is hosting me for a few days on this trip and I’m excited to have a base on the East End of the island. I’m usually a Middle Gulf Drive or West End girl, so this is a treat.
During my stay here, I plan to:
- Shell at the beach that fronts the resort
- Explore the on-site botanical garden
- Swim in one of two heated pools and check out the kiddie pool
- Visit the dock on the canal side of the island (which can accommodate boats up to 25 feet for a small daily fee)
- Borrow a complimentary kayak or canoe
You can also rent boats, standup paddleboards and bikes here for a small fee; play tennis (there are two courts); fish from the beach or bay; and hit the fitness room.
The resort has instituted new COVID-19 cleaning procedures that also set me at ease. The procedures include:
- A 24-hour gap between checkout and the next check-in
- After guest check out, disinfecting spray is applied to all condo surfaces,d and all sheets, bedspreads, blankets, pillow shams and towels are professionally laundered.
- The day after the initial cleaning, maintenance staff enter again with an electrostatic fogger to apply another disinfecting solution.
There are 16 two-story buildings — five on the canal side of East Gulf Drive and the rest on the Gulf — that comprise Sanibel Moorings Resort. Each building has eight units, with the exception of No. 1 that includes just two condos.
You can rent one-, two- or three-bedroom units and each has a living room, full kitchen, dining area and screened lanai (ours, unit No. 122, had two lanais — where we enjoyed most of our takeout meals — and both had knock-out views of the beach). There’s also a communal laundry room.
Wi-Fi is free for everyone at this resort and each condo is outfitted with everything you’d need for your stay.
The flora and fauna are incredible
Sanibel is in the subtropics and across the island, you can see plants and animals that may not be part of your daily experience. And, the island makes it easy to get up close to nature with its many walking and biking trails, many of which are paved or boardwalk-style.
You can take a wildlife drive (or board a tram for a narrated visit) at J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge. Keep your eyes peeled for all manner of fish, fowl, reptiles and mammals. Over the years, we’ve seen alligators, iguanas, bobcats, raccoons, river otters and beautiful birds, such as roseate spoonbills, blue herons, snowy egrets and more.
There are also miles and miles of paved walking and biking paths to enjoy. Or, try one of the many trails. I like the Pond Apple Park Trail, which is accessible from the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce (1159 Causeway Boulevard) parking lot. The easiest (and most shaded) is probably the Shell Mound Trail at the end of Ding Darling’s Wildlife Drive. The quarter-mile loop trail is on a raised boardwalk, so it’s easy for little kids or anyone who can only walk on a sturdy, flat surface.
And don’t forget the miles and miles of beaches — all affording you the opportunity to go shelling and bring home beautiful gems from the sea (just make sure not to take home any live shells — that’s against the rules). This is where you’ll see white and brown pelicans put on a show as they dive-bomb the water in search of their next meal. Dolphins often frolic just offshore and you may even see leatherback turtles that nest on the islands between April and October. Many visitors also make the acquaintance of a gopher tortoise or two while on vacation.
It’s small-town America
I was just a toddler when I visited Sanibel for the first time with my family.
In fact, one of my earliest memories is of my sister, brother and I building a sandcastle on the beach at The Gallery Motel. The motel is long gone, but the property is not far from where I’m staying right now.
In the years since, I’ve visited Sanibel and Captiva for anywhere from just a few days at a time, to weeklong stints and even month-long stays in rental homes. On each trip, I’ve loved Sanibel’s small-town feel. Residents greet each other — and frequent visitors — by name. There are plenty of mom-and-pop restaurants, many of which have been open for years and years. And, there are plenty of community events throughout the year.
Visit on the Fourth of July and experience an old-timey parade, road rally, community barbecue and fireworks display. In early December, the main drag, Periwinkle Way, is lined with glowing bags for the Luminary festivities, and local businesses bust out decorations, music and treats for passersby The entire town turns out to kick off the holiday season and it’s a ton of fun in a simple, wholesome way.
On Sanibel, life unfolds at a somewhat slower pace and I always feel recharged as I depart the island, cross the Sanibel Causeway and start heading home.
Whether or not to travel right now — and how you do it — is a personal decision.
At this point, I’m comfortable with road trips to destinations that have safety measures in place and activities that can be done with plenty of social distancing. For me, Sanibel is just that place.
It’s possible to be cautious and careful during the pandemic and still live our lives. It just might take some extra planning to pull off a trip that may be quite unlike those you’ve gravitated toward in the past.
Featured image by Noah Densmore/Shutterstock
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